Friday, September 05, 2008

20 Things Writing Exercise

Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit is one of my books of the year already, but I've been re-reading it this week for a course I'm facilitating in October. It's even better than I remembered. Underscored already on nearly every page, with stars at the top of pages I think are particularly exciting. If this goes on, I'm going to have to invest in another copy. Today, I took myself off to one of my favourite coffee shops to do this exercise from the book:

Pick a couple and write down everything they do until you get to twenty things. Then study the list and come up with a story about the couple.

I picked two teenage girls who were sitting opposite me - one had kept doing these strange karate chops over her coffee cup and I decided in my storytelling that she was nervous. She knew something about the other girl's boyfriend and she wasn't sure whether to tell or not.

But then Twyla Tharp suggests doing the same exercise with another couple but this time you note only the things you find interesting, 'that please you aesthetically or emotionally'.

As she warns, this took a lot longer. The couple I chose this time looked like a married couple. I noticed he kept touching her, but she kept flicking his hands off. She stared at him though. And laughed loudly at his jokes. When he picked up a paper, she looked over his arm to see what he was reading. He made a meal of reading the paper, of turning over each page slowly and carefully, as if he knew what she was doing.

Twyla Tharp says that when you observe this way 'You might need all day. That's what happens when you apply judgment to your powers of observation. You become selective. You edit. You filter the world through your particular prism.'

What was clear was that I had already started the storytelling procedure as I watched and made notes the second time. I was looking for movements that would fit in with my view. And also that I had picked one person - the man - to tell my story. The first time round, either girl could have been the narrator. It was only when I came to look at my list of their movements, that the one gesture - the chopping hands - sparked the story.

Twyla Tharp says to study the two lists you make this way and look at what appeals to you in the second list.

It was definitely the difference in communication that I saw between the second couple that hooked me. The way they were so close and yet didn't seem to be able to get through the barriers between them. She was trying to reading him almost from inside, while he was feeling her outline. Almost patting her to check she was still there. Was he interested in her, or in what she saw of him? I wasn't sure and that sparked some interest in me.

In the first list when I just wrote down individual movements, I didn't look at how the two girls communicated at all.

TT goes on to say: 'What caught your fancy is not as important as the difference between the two lists. What you included and what you left out speaks volumes about how you see the world. If you do this exercise enough times, patterns will emerge. The world will not be revealed to you. YOU will be revealed.'


SueG said...

Ooh. I know Twyla Tharp but I don't know this book. Thanks! Are you now back in London? Any chance of a coffee sometime over the next couple of weeks? xo

Sarah Salway said...

Yep, definitely. Shall we bring notebooks?!!!

aoc gold said...


(Part I)

Who has seen the wind?

Neither I nor you;

But when the leaves hang trembling,

The wind is passing through.

(Part II)

Who has seen the wind?

Neither you nor I;
But when the trees bow down their heads,

The wind is passing by.

O wind , why do you never rest,

Wandering, whistling to and fro,

Bring rain out of the west,

From the dim north bringing snow?

~by wow powerleveling